Healthy Soul

Memphis, TN: 24 hours on the ground

My friend Valarie and I are on our own Black History tour aboard Amtrak, visiting heritage sites pertaining to African American history in Chicago, Memphis, Jackson, New Orleans, Birmingham, and Washington, DC. We began on Tuesday, June 28, 2011. Here is what we did on Day 3, in Memphis.

There she was, posing for a picture with the marque for the B. B. King club as the backdrop. She looked so familiar. Who would I know here on Beale Street in Memphis? And then we recognized each other in the same moment! Sure enough, there was my friend Sandi, all the way from Philly just like me, exploring the fun, foods and lights on Beale Street.

It’s a small world indeed. She was here for the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority conference. Valarie and I were on our third day of our own Black History Tour: Tuesday in DC, Wednesday in Chicago and Thursday in Memphis.

Valarie was back home in Memphis after a nine-year hiatus.

The Morning

We left Chicago at 8 p.m., arriving in Memphis at 6:30 a.m. The train ride was simply a night’s sleep. Totally uneventful. In Memphis, though, we felt the excitement the minute we got off the train. There was no mistaking where most of the passengers waiting to get on this train were headed. The T-shirts said it all: The Essence Jazz Festival in New Orleans.

Alumni of Orange Mount High School in Memphis, on their way to the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans.

One exit from the station took us to Main Street. Open only to the trolley and pedestrians, Main Street took us from south to north past cafes, restaurants, gym clubs, upscale condos, the convention center and several Marriott hotels – Spring Hill, Sleep Inn, Courtyard, as well as the “regular” Marriott. Today was  “Code Orange Day,” Donna, our trolley driver informed us. The fare had been reduced from $1 per person to 25 cents as an incentive to convert more drivers into riders. We were not sure how the designation was arrived at, but it had something to do with the anticipated levels of harmful emissions in the air.

On "Code Orange Day," the Main Street Trolley ride was 25 cents per person.

We were happy. Where else can you get a 25-cent trolley ride that took you where you wanted to go? We were so happy we took the trolley past our hotel – the Sleep Inn – to the end of the line.

Donna pointed out places to eat the best breakfast, the best lunch, the best and most affordable afternoon tea, and areas of interest that were in walking distance – Beale Street, the National Civil Rights Museum and Lorraine Hotel, the convention center and the Pyramid.

Pyramid, former home of the Memphis Grizzlies, with its own Pharoah -Ramesses.

Now empty for about six years, the Pyramid was the home of the Memphis NBA Grizzlies team. Donna thought it was the seventh largest pyramid in the world. I have not been able to verify that. However, it had its own Pharaoh, Ramesses, whose lineage was yet undetermined. We learned later that Memphis was named after Memphis, Egypt, because, like the city that sits on the mighty Nile, it sits on the mighty Mississippi River, affectionately called the American Nile.

We rode back to the hotel, seeing the red and white of the Delta sorority sisters embarking from buses. They were here for their southern regional conference. One of my sisters is a Delta, but will not be here. I called to tell her what I was seeing, and she sounded disappointed for not being a part of the events. At the hotel we were greeted by Theo, Valarie’s friend. They both graduated from Carver High School. Newly retired, he had offered to take us around today.

High school classmates Theo and Valarie.

The Day

Our first stop was the Blue Plate Café. No matter what was ordered you can get a side of pancakes (not a short stack) or a giant Belgian waffle. My choice of accompaniment for my huevos rancheros was grits. Toast was included, but had to be left uneaten. I guess that’s for the hearty Tennessean. Sans toast, pancakes or waffles, it was extremely tasty and filling.

Rooms 306 and 307 of the Lorraine Hotel beckoned us. An integral part of the National Civil Rights Museum, the balcony to those connecting rooms was the site of Dr. Luther Martin King Jr.’s murder. Special thanks to Jonathan Lyons, director of public relations for the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, I received a media pass allowing me to take pictures inside the museum.

Before going in, however, our attention was caught by Jacqueline Smith, a trained opera singer and the last tenant at the Lorraine Hotel, who has been protesting the presence of the museum in her community. When I asked why she had been waging this protest for almost 23 years, she explained that King would want the money used for improving housing and other needs of the indigent.

Protesting the National Civil Rights Museum

Once inside, the horrific experiences of those fighting for civil rights and freedom from mental slavery were raw and unvarnished. Traveling by train made me immediately interested in the contributions of A. Philip Randolph and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Porters to the movement.

Conversations among the visitors flowed freely. For a moment I chatted with a teacher from Eau Claire, WI. She and 47 other teachers were on a study tour of cities significant to the Civil Rights Movement, including Jackson and Vicksburg, MS; Birmingham, AL, and Memphis. They would develop curricular materials for the upcoming school year. This teacher and some of her contemporaries immediately remembered the images they had seen on television as children, as well as the emotions associated with them. There was sadness in the air.

From the museum, Theo took us to Stax Records and then to the Alex Haley Museum, about an hour’s drive north of Memphis in the small town of Henning. Here, Haley’s maternal grandparents built a home in 1918-19, and he spent many of his summers there. I could relive the nights of excitement and anger and confusion that surrounded the TV airing of “Roots,” the book Haley wrote about slavery.

Album Cover - Booker T and the MGs - one of the first interracial R & B bands.

Stax has been defunct since the mid-70’s, but like the phoenix, it has resurfaced with an academy for students of music of all ages and a charter school serving  grades 6-12. As we went through the self-guided tour, I sang along with Rufus Thomas, one of the first DJ’s to play an Elvis recording on a black radio station, danced on the dance floor provided to Sam & Dave, and wished that Otis Redding had stayed with us just a little longer to stir our souls with just one more song.

The evening

It was a special treat as Jonathan from the convention bureau, Theo, Valarie and I were treated to a personalized Heritage Tour by Elaine Turner. Elaine and her sister founded the tour company in 1986 as a vehicle for grounding youth in their cultural heritage and as a motivator for high academic achievement. Of course, they are now providing that service to patrons of all ages and ethnicities.

As a prolific reader, I always thought I would have been an excellent candidate for Jeopardy. But I soon realized that was not so. As Elaine showed us around the Slave Haven at the Burkle Estate, which was a station on the Underground Railroad; the W.C. Handy home at its new location on Beale Street, and the Baptist church where Ida B. Wells Barnett started her newspaper, I realized that huge chunks of black history were missing. I did not know about Robert Church, born a slave but became a millionaire, was the man who helped Memphis regain its charter as a city after being devastated by yellow fever. And for the first time, I was hearing about Paul Williams, the black architect who designed Danny Thomas’ St. Jude’s Hospital.

Elaine Turner, co-founder of Heritage Tours, and Jonathan Lyons, director of public relations for the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau. Turner took us on a tour of Slave Haven, an underground railway stop at the Burkle Estate.

The tour ended on Beale Street with dinner at the King Palace Café. The best grilled catfish I have ever eaten. Exhausted but extremely satisfied, we meandered back to the our hotel to sleep on a real bed again after those two nights on the train.

The Next Morning

It’s 6:30 a.m. and we were getting off the trolley to get seats on the train heading for Jackson. Directly across from the station were nine love letters to/about Memphis from the mouths of musicians. All I can say after 24 hours in Memphis was what Smokey Robinson had sung: “I second that emotion.”

Billboard across from the Amtrak station in Memphis, TN.


Click here to read the other posts from Jennifer’s Black History Tour.

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